Tiger Woods and the fight against Father Time

Tiger and Augusta National have changed since 1997 (3:59)

Ahead of Tiger Woods' 22nd Masters, Tom Rinaldi looks back at the changes in Tiger's life and Augusta National since his first win. (3:59)

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Golf has Tiger Woods, which means golf has at least one advantage over the Big Three of the NFL, NBA and MLB. Tom Brady, LeBron James and Mike Trout have no chance of competing and winning beyond their 50th birthdays. (Well, Brady might, but play along for the hell of it.)

Tiger? He conceivably has as much as a 17-year window to add to his major championship total of 14. Tom Watson was closing hard on his 60th birthday when he stood one makeable putt away from winning The Open at Turnberry in 2009, and here is an indisputable fact about the iconic Mr. Watson:

He was never as good a golfer as Tiger Woods. Not even close.

No, that doesn't mean Woods will stay healthy long enough to pull a Watson, albeit with a more precise putt on the 72nd hole. But if his back does hold up over the long haul after his spinal fusion -- a Hail Mary surgery after the others failed -- allowed for last year's dramatic comeback, Woods, an 80-time PGA Tour winner, will do more than break Sam Snead's record of 82. The winner of four Masters just might match Jack Nicklaus' records of six green jackets and 18 majors too.

"Tiger could be 75 years old," PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan told ESPN.com, "and if he showed up at a tournament, I would say he has a chance to win.

"You see Phil [Mickelson] winning at 48, Tiger winning at 42 ... Vijay [Singh] almost winning at 56. I wouldn't put a time frame on it with Tiger. He never ceases to amaze me. He never ceases to amaze our fans."

Woods amazed himself last year by nearly winning back-to-back majors at The Open and PGA Championship. Then he finally ended a drought of five-plus years at the Tour Championship. The injuries had left him bedridden and in searing pain that overmatched the cortisone shots and epidurals. He couldn't play with his kids or go out to dinner, and he thought he was done playing golf even before he overmedicated himself and got arrested for DUI in 2017. On arrival at Augusta National last spring, Woods had good reason to describe his appearance in the tournament as "a walking miracle."

But this time around at Augusta is a different ballgame. Tiger held up physically last season, at least until he staggered like a zombie through the Ryder Cup. Exhausted after playing far more meaningful golf than he ever imagined, Woods spent his offseason in the gym to get stronger, tougher and more durable, to limit the kind of injuries that kept him from Bay Hill (neck strain) as much as possible. He hasn't won yet in 2019, but he did make a statement by beating Rory McIlroy at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. The same Rory McIlroy who last summer said that the game's young guns aren't overly worried about Woods and that this version of Tiger isn't the one "Phil and Ernie [Els] and those guys had to deal with."

Can the new, old Tiger defy McIlroy and become the man to beat once again? Is there a limit on how long the surgically repaired Woods can keep contending?

"Mine is very simple," Tiger said of a potential limit, or ceiling. "It's my back. If I can keep my back healthy, I can play out here for a while. If it goes, then I can't. It's not really complicated. If I'm healthy, I've got the skills."

Tiger has more skills than the dozens of men who have won tournaments at an older age than his, with the possible exception of Nicklaus. But his longevity will be determined by more than skill and health.

"It's also desire," Watson told ESPN.com. "A lot of things will have an effect on whether Tiger will continue to win. But I fully expect him to win another championship, and [multiple majors] are within his capability, sure. You look at Vijay, he had a chance to win a tour event at 56. I had a chance to win a major at 59. There will be people winning major championships in their 50s, I guarantee you, because today's players keep themselves in better condition than we were in."

"That's why a 58-year-old Nicklaus -- while getting prepared for hip-replacement surgery -- had a legitimate chance to win the 1998 Masters and finished ahead of the defending champ, 22-year-old Woods, by 2 strokes. It was a beautiful thing, and a reminder that the bigger sports requiring contact and mobility still envy golf's advantage of allowing its greats to play on forever."

Gary Player, golf's answer to Jack LaLanne, agreed that a 50-something will soon blow past Julius Boros -- who won the 1968 PGA Championship at 48 -- as the game's oldest major winner. Given his fanatical devotion to fitness and proper dieting, the 83-year-old Player might know more about the human body than any other golfer on the planet. He cites 61-year-old senior-circuit terminator Bernhard Langer ("The man is built like a one-iron and has the skill set to be in contention in majors") and 48-year-old Jim Furyk's near-miss at the Players Championship as examples of golf's ever-expanding boundaries.

"Most sports, even if you do take proper care, your career is over at 35," Player wrote by email. "In golf, we are just reaching our prime and have decades left."

In that context, asked if he could fathom a 60-year-old Woods outdoing Watson and winning a big one, Player wrote, "Ha. If Tiger is 60 and wins a major, I'll be 100 years old. Nothing would make me happier than to greet him on the 18th green to celebrate. It would be one of the greatest stories not only in golf, but in the history of sport.

"No doubt Tiger's injuries and subsequent surgeries have taken a toll on his body. But the man is so talented, and we have seen just months ago that when healthy, he is still a force to be reckoned with. ... The advancement in modern medicine, physical therapy and equipment are also in his corner. [Tiger] has learned how to manage his game and still has a very high golf IQ."


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Like Watson, Player raised the issue of Woods' desire and how it measures up to his desire in his dominant prime.

"What I do not know, and only Tiger himself does, is what does he have left inside?" Player wrote. "Golf is such a mental game, and tournaments are won primarily by the mind. He already has accomplished so much, the question is, 'Does the desire to break Jack's record still drive him?' There's a compelling mental battle as well as if his body can hold up physically. It's a monumental challenge, and perhaps the only person who could do it is the most talented golfer in history -- Tiger Woods."

Tiger accepts the notion that, in his 40s, with two children, he can't be nearly as consumed by the sport as he was in his 20s. Life, Woods recently conceded, "gets a little more complicated" with age.

"You don't spend as much time practicing, or as long," Tiger said. "Life changes and evolves. You look at [Justin Thomas], all he does is play golf. I told him, 'Add 18 years to it, and then let's see what you do.'"

But Tiger also cited Langer and the likes of Fred Funk, Jay Haas and Raymond Floyd as graybeards who extended their careers with accuracy off the tee and exceptional wedge play.

"It's doable," Woods said.

Of course doable is a word that means different things to different people. Does doable mean winning another half-dozen tournaments, including one major, and breaking Snead's record before calling it a career? Or does doable mean somehow winning another five majors and breaking Nicklaus' record, the one Tiger has wanted since childhood?

"There's no urgency to beat Sam Snead; that's going to happen, 100 percent," said Paul Azinger, lead analyst for NBC and Golf Channel. "I used to be 100 percent sure he'd pass Jack, but I don't think so anymore. I think Tiger is the greatest player I've ever seen; I've never seen anything like him. It took him 13 years to miss a putt he had to make. ... I just think golf is way harder now than it was back then. The game itself and the score required is the same, but the outside distractions I think are off-the-chart different. Jack is one of my all-time buddies, and I don't want to trash him. But if Tiger finishes with Snead's record, maybe 87 wins and 15 majors, I'm going to say Tiger is the greatest to ever play."

No, it's not going to be easy for Woods to consistently beat the younger, stronger, more athletic players he inspired -- the McIlroys, Brooks Koepkas and Dustin Johnsons. Tiger is no longer the fire-breathing dragon in red whose mere presence, as friend Steve Stricker said, "was very deflating" to the rest of the field.

"But he's still got a ton of game," Stricker said. "If he gets that putter figured out to where he was putting back in 2000, he'll be fine."

Woods showed last season, with his stirring performances at The Open and PGA, that it's unlikely he won't close the gap on Nicklaus' 18 majors in the near future. Asked about the resurrection of the Tiger vs. Jack debate, Player, who identified Woods as the more talented golfer, stayed loyal to his old friend and ceremonial partner.

"My gut tells me," Player said, "that the greatest golfer of all time will remain the one who also is our game's greatest gentleman -- Jack Nicklaus."

Woods might have more time than he or anyone else imagined to enhance his legacy. As the commissioner, Monahan, said, "The horizon out here is unlike any other sport." That's why a 58-year-old Nicklaus -- while getting prepared for hip-replacement surgery -- had a legitimate chance to win the 1998 Masters and finished ahead of the defending champ, 22-year-old Woods, by 2 strokes. It was a beautiful thing, and a reminder that the bigger sports requiring contact and mobility still envy golf's advantage of allowing its greats to play on forever.

A smart fan will savor Tiger Woods at the Masters this week just in case his body breaks down again. But remember, if his back holds up, we could still see him contending at Augusta National in 10 or 15 years.

ESPN.com's Bob Harig contributed to this story.